In a world where social media ‘likes’ replace genuine contact with friends, isn’t it about time we reached out to the people we care about? Of course, there are risks to getting closer – we may carry old hurts and resentments that are too easily triggered. But with loneliness becoming the new health epidemic, there are even greater risks to keeping others at arm’s length. We need to remind ourselves how important it is to get closer.
It’s interesting how much our unreal expectations can spoil our time with other people. It could be that we believe the photoshopped lives our friends post online; perhaps you have a fantasy that every other family is doing a Bing Crosby around the piano with rosy-cheeked happy children; or that other people’s husbands remembered Valentines and booked the restaurant/bought roses without having to be asked.
Take a moment to think about that - doesn’t it seem a little unreal, or even worse, fake? I don’t know about you, but if my family stated to behave like perfect versions of themselves, I’d worry they’d been abducted by aliens.
Sometimes, you need to remind yourself what you love about these people. See their flaws (and your own) as rather touchingly amusing rather than disastrous signs of failure. Perhaps you can learn to chuckle at yourself and them - fondly rather than meanly. It’s not easy being human and imperfect; and that basic, shared understanding is as good a place as any to start.
“When the myth fails, human love begins,” wrote Anais Nin.
What do you always do in relationships?
You may already know what your patterns are. You go for the same types, with the same outcomes. You end up playing the same role in family or group situations, even though you may have grown and changed in everyday life.
Studies have found that your style of relating is laid down in the first few months of your life. Three main relational or Attachment Patterns have been identified by clinical psychologists. They are:
Secure Attachment - “I feel happy in myself and respect that my partner is a separate individual.”
Avoidant - “If anyone gets too close, I get hurt or rejected so I pull away.”
Anxious - “I fear being betrayed so I get clingy, and sometimes paranoid and resentful.”
When stressed, we often ping back to very early experiences, and can feel very young, vulnerable and overwhelmed, especially in situations where there is potential conflict.
The good news is that, thanks to our brain’s ‘plasticity’, we can create totally new patterns and relate in healthier ways.
What you can do
The bottom line is that you can only be responsible for your own actions and feelings in any relationship: what the other person does (or doesn’t do) is up to them.
Notice when your reaction to something someone says is slightly out of proportion; when the emotion feels overwhelming, and whether its anger or tears. This is usually a sign that you are not responding to the here-and-now but triggered back to the past. If you can spot this happening, take a deep breath, assess the reality of the situation then choose to react differently.
As any couples or family therapist will tell you, communication is key to a healthy relationship. No-one is a mind reader: you have to say what you feel. Make sure you own your feelings rather than playing the victim. Try beginning with, “This is how I feel when…” Not, “You make me feel…”. Then give them space to respond. Be prepared to hear that you made a mistake, and own that, too - it could relate back to your pattern and help you see how the present situation is different.
Instead of playing the victim, admit you are vulnerable. We all are, we’re just afraid to show it. Take a risk and say what you really feel; scary, yes, but brave, often powerful and essential for intimacy and trust.
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.” Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability.
Learn to listen
At the heart of communication is an ability to listen and reflect on what you have heard, as well as saying what you feel. To really listen, put aside your own thoughts and feelings, and try to enter that other person’s world. Try mirroring their body language, think of all the things they’ve been through, and see the situation from their point of view. Then tell them what you heard, show them you understand.
“If you can pay attention to somebody, without being carried away by your thoughts, that’s an expression of love,” says Haemin Sunim, author of Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down.
Having a massage at a spa reminds us of how amazing, and rare, it is to be touched. Touch is powerful. Positive touch releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding between mother and child, lowers our heart-rate and cortisol levels. Babies need to be touched in order to thrive. It is our first language, our first experience of love and we are sensitive to its communication - both positive and negative. Positive touch is the secret to every successful relationship.
Being touched with kindness, respect and compassion calms us down and makes us happy: think about how we crave a hug when we feel sad. A good hug is invited or offered, not demanded or forced. Hug like you mean it, mindfully savour the warmth and contact with another body and think compassionate, loving thoughts.